Our food system is in crisis. Private labels are ruining Australian farmers. Choose free-range pork and poultry. Eat less meat. Stop eating meat. Are any fish still sustainable to eat? Ban GMOs. Labelling is the problem. We need CCTV in abattoirs. Misleading certification schemes make it impossible to trust free range. Eat slow, whole foods. Shop at farmers’ markets. Only eat organic. Ban live export! Save live export! Don’t eat sugar. ColeWorths is the real problem…
PEOPLE, THERE’S A PROBLEM. THERE ARE PROBLEMS.
But how do we solve them?
Let’s step back for a moment from immediate and pressing concerns around seasonal, local, organic, safe, fair, humane food, and consider the confusing array within an ethical framework, such as one that the fabulous Cristy Clark has called ‘ecotarian‘. All of our concerns about the industrial food system can be better understood (and so addressed) if we are led by a coherent ethical approach, rather than atomised ‘problems’.
According to Socrates, people will do what is good if they know what is right, and therefore be happy. But how can we know if we can’t see the means of production of our food (and myriad other items we consume, even if not corporally)?
If we ask ourselves ‘is this organic?’ we are wondering whether there are synthetic, artificial inputs in the form of harmful pesticides or fertilisers, but we haven’t asked ‘how far did it travel?’ or ‘how much were the workers paid?’ We may in fact also be worried about food miles, workers’ conditions, and the treatment of animals, but ‘is this organic?’ didn’t open up the space for those other concerns. The same is true of ‘is this free range?’ or ‘is this GMO?’ and many other such questions about the history of our food before it gets to our plate.
But when we ask ‘was this produced ethically?’ we are required to think about ‘is this right?’ and ‘is it good to eat this?’, which requires consideration of the environmental, social, cultural, political, economic, and physical impacts of our choices. We must consider the entire ecology of the choice – and I include human welfare in my definition of ecology here.
If we take an ethical approach, and in particular the hedonist ethic I have spent some years trying to understand and follow, then a narrow focus on food miles, organics, or heritage breeds is too limiting. These are the cornerstones, the seeds if you will, that make for a fecund garden of ideas to nourish a healthy world. But on their own, each one is but a luscious zucchini, a wayward tomatillo, a cheeky piglet.
An overarching, well-articulated ethic is to local potatoes like permaculture is to veganism. We need systems thinking – what are all the constituent parts? Who are the key players in the system – the seeds, the nurturers of the seeds, the carers of the seedlings, the micro-organic activity of the soil in which the seeds grow, the people who want to eat the zucchinis and all of the potential players in the web of those who will see that the produce makes it from paddock to plate.
Choosing to eat organic, local, seasonal, free-range, fair-trade or vegan diets are all legitimate and important parts of changing our food system, but on their own, they don’t address systemic problems.
But the problem with following an ethic in today’s world is that the supply chain – that long set of links that goes from the production and harvesting of food through to the processing, transport and sales – has grown so long and obscured that you can find yourself eating horsemeat when you ordered beef.
Join me over the next few months as I explore how to demystify the supply chain and participate in transforming our food systems, from production right through to consumption.
And welcome my new title as I re-launch this long-running blog as Tammi Jonas: Food Ethics today – it’s not just me tasting terroir, it’s all of us.